Best Albums of 2011

The album is still king for me. In an age of singles, these albums were my favorites of 2011. I heard plenty of other good records beyond this top 50, and I don’t doubt for a second that I missed a myriad other worthwhile recordings.

1. BILL CALLAHAN: APOCALYPSE (Drag City) — Bill Callahan speaks as much as he sings. It’s as if he’s telling you something important in a private conversation. Something important, and yet cryptic. Afterward, you find yourself asking: Just what did he mean when he told me, “Hey, no more drovering”? This recording lets you play back the conversation, and the next time you hear it, it sounds as if he means something different than you’d thought before. The words become more and more musical with each listen, until the lines that seemed like monotone spoken word become indelible melodies. His sentences transform into songs, and the songs themselves seem to morph as they go along, dancing from one shape into another, trembling and buzzing as they go. A strange and singular masterpiece.

2. GILLIAN WELCH: THE HARROW & THE HARVEST (Acony) — Old-fashioned musical idioms — mountain folk songs and murder ballads — become timeless and somehow even contemporary when channeled through the intertwined voices and guitars of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Welch’s rustic tales of woe are as evocative as ever, and there’s no need to add effects or other instruments when the music is this perfect and beautiful.

3. THEE OH SEES: CARRION CRAWLER/THE DREAM (In the Red) — They turned it up to 11. Everything is cranked up to almost alarming levels of intensity on this California band’s newest record, with one rampaging garage rock tune after another. When Thee Oh Sees get into a groove and keep it going for a while, it pummels you into a trancelike submission. It all crackles with electricity, while the constant male-female harmonies emit a spooky, ethereal atmosphere.

4. BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY: WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN (Drag City) — The latest in a string of very, very good records by Will Oldham. No further proof was necessary that he’s a genius singer-songwriter, but here it is anyway. Gentle folk rock with a sense of stillness and introspection at its core, the music is punctuated with a few of Oldham’s typically shocking lyrics, as well as some beautiful harmonies with a spiritual air about them. The sacred and profane are both in abundance here.

5. TOM WAITS: BAD AS ME (Anti-) — So many of Tom Waits’ strengths as a storyteller, musical craftsman, songwriter and singer — yes, a singer! — are on display here. It’s a well-rounded collection of memorable new songs by one of the all-time greats, with poetic and funny turns of phrase, a little bit of the Spanish tinge, roadhouse rock ’n’ roll, wistful ballads, and even a touch of Waits’ early Beat-poet-hanging-out-at-the-bar vibe. On songs like the opening track, “Chicago,” Waits channels one of the great American musical genres, the blues, into a dark, churning form that’s all his own. And when he breaks out into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of the album — well, haven’t we all been waiting years for him to do that?

6. YUCK: YUCK (Fat Possum) — So they sound like some other band. Or a bunch of other bands. So what? Who doesn’t sound like someone else? Influences and resemblances don’t matter as much as whether the songs stand up on their own. And Yuck’s songs were among the year’s catchiest, filled with wonderfully loopy guitar riffs and power-pop choruses. What an enjoyable listen this album is.

7. P.J. HARVEY: LET ENGLAND SHAKE (Vagrant) — The always-inventive P.J. Harvey did something novel on her latest record: She sampled. Not the sort of sampling heard in hip-hop, but borrowing some unexpected musical elements. A xylophone melody lifted from the old novelty tune “Istanbul (Not Constantinople.” Some Russian folk lyrics. A line from Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues” (“I’m going to take my problem to the United Nations”). A bugle call grafted onto one of Harvey’s songs, sounding at first like it’s jarringly in the wrong key and out of tempo with the song, but then gradually defying logic and seeming like an indispensible part of the track. These mash-ups seemed to inspire Harvey to make one of her most diverse and unusual sets of songs, with a lyrical point of view that’s both expansive and introspective.

8. MICKEY: ROCK ’N ROLL DREAMER (HoZac) — Garage rock was hot in 2011, especially in Chicago, where the HoZac record label is the center of an exciting scene. One of the bands in this scene, Mickey, plays fun but frequently sloppy live shows, filled with drunken energy. The band tamed that rambunctious recklessness just enough to let the strength of its songs shine through on this debut studio album, which sounds like a lost classic of the ’70s era of proto-punk and glam. Long live rock ’n’ roll dreamers!

9. CHARLES BRADLEY: NO TIME FOR DREAMING (Dunham/Daptone) — Charles Bradley’s bio was one of the year’s most moving stories, and he had a terrific debut album to match — a debut album he recorded at the age of 62. Like Sharon Jones before him, Bradley is a soul singer who performed for decades without getting much attention until being discovered by the folks at the Daptone label. The songs are inspired by the frustrations and tragedies Bradley has dealt with in his life, including the murder of his brother, and they sound like classic ’60s soul. Despite the retro sound, the record is a searing and powerful statement on today’s America, a plea for a better world delivered with passion by a man who really, really means it.

10. RADIOHEAD: THE KING OF LIMBS (TBD) — Radiohead carries on with its transformation, heading further in the direction of experimental and ambient art rock … and yet, underneath all of the pulsing sonic haze, the band is still making songs that stick with you. Somehow, Radiohead manages to sound chilled-out and twitchy at the same time, and the results are consistently intriguing, whether you’re dancing or supine as you listen.

11. The Feelies: Here Before (Bar None)
12. Sam Phillips: Cameras in the Sky (self-released)
13. Wild Flag: Wild Flag (Sub Pop)
14. Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It)
15. Mekons: Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 (Sin/Bloodshot)
16. Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (ATO)
17. Wilco: The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti-)
18. Chad VanGaalen: Diaper Island (Sub Pop)
19. Cults: Cults (Itno)
20. Cave: Neverendless (Drag City)
21. Low: C’mon (Sub Pop)
22. Cass McCombs: Wit’s End (Domino)
23. Woods: Sun and Shade (Woodsist)
24. John Luther Adams (performed by Stephen Drury, Scott Deal and the Callithumpian Consort): Four Thousand Holes (Cold Blue Music)
25. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (4AD)
26. The Skull Defekts: Peer Amid (Thrill Jockey)
27. Lyyke Li: Wounded Ryhmes (Atlantic)
28. I Was A King: Old Friends (Sounds Familyre)
29. Tinariwen: Tassili (Anti-)
30. Eleventh Dream Day: Riot Now! (Thrill Jockey)
31. Heavy Times: Heavy Times (HoZac)
32. Marissa Nadler: Marissa Nadler (Box of Cedar)
33. Fungi Girls: Some Easy Magic (HoZac)
34. My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind (Asthmatic Kitty)
35. The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries)
36. Mannequin Men: Mannequin Men (Addenda)
37. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)
38. The Singleman Affair: Silhouettes at Dawn (Cardboard Sangria)
39. A.A. Bondy: Believers (Fat Possum)
40. Bodies of Water: Twist Again (Secretly Canadian)
41. yMusic: Beautiful Mechanical (New Amsterdam)
42. The People’s Temple: Sons of Stone (HoZac)
43. Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard (Guided By Voices)
44. NRBQ: Keep This Love Goin’ (Clang!)
45. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther)
46. White Hills: H-p1 (Thrill Jockey)
47. Tune-Yards: Whokill (4AD)
48. Disappears: Guider (Kranky)
49. Nick Lowe: That Old Magic (Yep Roc)
50. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

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